Just when everyone began to write them off, the UCSB men’s basketball team is once again making noise in the Big West Conference standings.
Following back-to-back wins, the Gauchos (19-6 overall, 8-4 in the Big West) now stand only a game and a half away from first place. Two weeks ago, Santa Barbara looked destined for the fourth seed or lower in the Big West Tournament, but a win tonight at Pacific (17-8, 8-4 Big West) would put UCSB alone in third place and would go a long way toward securing a bye in the tournament semifinals.
The Tigers beat the Gauchos 71-58 on Jan. 24 at the Thunderdome, but, as it has proven over the last couple of years, UCSB tends to play its best basketball on the road. Santa Barbara won at Pacific last season, one of 10 road wins for the Gauchos in 2006-07. This year’s squad is a Big West best with 7-3 on the road, with two of the losses coming at #3 North Carolina and #9 Stanford. In addition, UCSB has won two neutral court games, leading to a 9-3 record away from Santa Barbara this season.
While the race for first place is heating up, the individual races are getting tight as well. Senior guard Alex Harris, who is averaging 20.4 points per game, is in a close three-way battle with Donovan Morris of Long Beach State with an average of 21.2 ppg and Josh Akognan of Cal State Fullerton with an average of 20 ppg for Big West scoring leader honors. Harris – who led the conference in scoring with 21.1 points per game last season – recently became the third member of UCSB’s 1,500 point club, and he now sits just 23 points behind Mark Hull for second place on the school’s all-time scoring list.
Harris has gotten a large chunk of his points at the free throw line this season, an area where the Gauchos excel as a team. UCSB is shooting 77.5 percent from the charity stripe, a figure that’s good for sixth in the country, and the Gauchos are on pace to break the school record for team free throw percentage.
Tonight’s game against the Tigers kicks off at 7 in Stockton. If the Gauchos are to win their third straight game, they’ll need to control junior guard Chad Troyer, who went off for 27 points in the teams’ previous meeting. UCSB will attempt to stop Troyer and the rest of the Tigers without the services of junior guard D.J. Posley, who will miss his third consecutive game because of the flu.